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Action finally in sight on CFIA modernization

Changes were first promised more than five years ago but were derailed by a federal election

After a five-year gestation period, proposed changes to modernize the Canadian Food Inspection Agency are about to arrive at the delivery room.

Speaking to the annual meeting of the Canadian Meat Council, Health Minister Jane Philpott said publication of the changes in the Canada Gazette is imminent. The government publishes proposed regulatory changes in Part 1 of the Gazette for at least 60 days of consultation.

After that, it considers the feedback and makes any changes before publishing the final version in Part 2 of the Gazette. In this case, the new rules likely won’t come into effect until next year.

“We’ll have a package of initiatives to announce,” she added but offered no further details.

Back in 2011, then agriculture minister Gerry Ritz unveiled the Safe Food for Canadians Act to consolidate all the laws CFIA was responsible for. They were originally under the mandates of several government departments. The bill was passed in November 2012.

Since then CFIA officials have consulted with the agri-food industry and other groups and drafted a preliminary version of the regulations, which will appear later in the coming weeks.

Albert Chambers, head of the Canadian Food Safety Supply Chain Coalition, says CFIA showed partial drafts of the regulations in the spring of 2014 and a full proposed draft in 2015. It was delayed by that year’s federal election, which brought the Liberals to power.

Food industry officials say they don’t think the proposed regulations have been changed much, which they call a disappointment because many of the sections were unclear or ineffective.

In her speech to CMC, Philpott, a medical doctor, admitted she still had much to learn about the agri-food sector. Health Canada controls both the Pest Management Regulatory Agency and CFIA.

She said the government hopes the CFIA modernization plan “will provide for more flexibility and innovations.” It will not reduce the level of inspection of food plants. She said CFIA has to provide more efficient online services and make more use of electronic communications.

She urged the agri-food industry to make good use of the comment period on the CFIA changes to convey to the agency and the politicians what changes to the proposed regulations are needed.

She said the meat industry is the most strictly regulated food-processing sector and has more inspectors working in it than another segment. It’s also important for the government to make sure the public receives accurate food safety information.

At the same time, government has to keep costs down for the export-dependent agri-food industry, she noted.

Chambers said the food safety coalition has four objectives in the CFIA modernization. They include reinforcing food safety as a shared responsibility of all participants in the supply chain, including input suppliers, businesses involved with the production, processing, manufacturing, importing, distribution, retailing and marketing of food, all levels of government and consumers.

As well, “the agri-food industry and other stakeholders should foster and facilitate the development of an integrated, co-ordinated, and national approach to food safety policy and regulation based on sound scientific risk assessment and risk management principles and on international standards.”

All businesses in the food supply chain should follow HACCP in their food safety systems, he added. In addition, “Food businesses, governments and other stakeholders have a responsibility to adequately resource, proactively manage, update, maintain and continually improve their individual and collaborative food safety systems and food safety initiatives.”

The earlier versions of the proposed CFIA changes stopped “well short of encompassing all the segments of the supply chain that fall within the scope of the act,” he said. All federally incorporated businesses in the food supply chain should be regulated and licensed.

As well, caution is needed in transitioning to outcome-based oversight because it will create a substantial new burden particularly for micro, small and medium-size regulated parties.

To truly achieve an integrated, co-ordinated and national approach to food safety policy and regulation, the federal government should push for increased harmonization between federal and provincial food regulations, he said.

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